Saturday, May 12, 2012

Banished - 'Why Didn't You Leave?'

In previous blogs I've discussed the most insidious of questions which is often asked of abused women: Why didn't you leave? During my research I came across 'Treating Survivors of Intimate Partner Abuse: Forensic Identification and Documentation' by Daniel Sheridan in Forensic Emergency Medicine, 2nd edn, Olshaker, Jackson, and Smock.
It is common for health care providers who treat severely abused women to wonder why a woman would stay in an abusive relationship. Why would she return time and time again? Why does she stay? When one questions why a woman stays in an abusive relationship, in essence, the health care provider is holding the battered woman accountable for her abuser's behavioural choices. Unfortunately, health care providers rarely say to the abusive male, 'Why do you abuse?' Instead of questioning why she stays, it is better to reframe the question as, 'What are her barriers to leaving?'
'Why didn't you leave?' is holding the abused woman accountable for her abuser's behavioural choices.What are your barriers to leaving? What were your barriers to leaving? Change the why to what. Change the are to were.

"Why do you abuse?' She provoked me. Sheriden explains that so often are the women blamed for causing the violent behaviours by their male abusers that the women begin to self-blame.

Sheridan refers to research which has compared psychological abuse in domestic violence with brainwashing of war and political prisoners. He includes in his list of barriers to leaving, Stockholm syndrome (bonding with your captor), traumatic bonding (intermittent good-bad behaviour), finances, father of their children, religious faith, forgiveness, fantasies she can fix the problem, extended family reasons, friends, etc. The point is there are many barriers to leaving, many of them based on societal and familial expectations and norms.

Without reviewing the entire chapter, a few items are of interest to increase our understanding of this most common of abusive and violent experiences.
The first form of domestic violence is a combination of verbal and emotional abuse. These include name-calling, public embarrassment, veiled and explicit threats of harm, harassment, lies, 'mind games,' and other psychological manipulations.
I liken this to the boiled frog analogy. If you put a frog into a pot of boiling water it will jump out to protect itself. If you put a frog in a pot of water and slowly turn up the heat the frog will slowly boil to death.
For many women, the forms of abuse change and escalate when the attempt to leave the abusive relationship. For thousands of battered women, leaving the abusive relationship is marked by increased harassment and danger. Tragically, for more than 2,000 women every year, leaving an abusive relationship results in their death and sometimes in the deaths of their children at the hands of their abusive male partners. ... These data support the assertion that the first year out of an abusive relationship is the most deadly for battered women.
Another barrier to leaving. This supports the fear some women express concerning the risks to their and their children's well-being and lives if they left the abusive relationship.

When discussing the 'father' barrier to leaving, Sheridan explains that a motivator to leave the abusive relationship is when the children begin to mimic his abusive language or abusive physical behaviour. Another barrier to leaving is 'familiarity' where the woman has been brought up in an abusive home and accepts that being beaten by a man is a necessary part of being a woman. This demonstrates the generational effects of domestic abuse.

Possessing a better understanding of this phenomenon increases our chances of being part of the solution rather than part of the problem. If we are fortunate enough not to experience domestic violence personally, we can be damn sure that we will know someone who has or currently is. As instructors, it is our responsibility to have an informed understanding of the problem if we are even to offer an opinion let alone attempt to help.


  1. Thank you for writing about this. I think it is crucial for all instructors to have at least a basic understanding of the effect of domestic violence. It is a complex issue with long lasting effects.

  2. Think "Stockholm Syndrome." Yes, there is a version regarding this type of abusive relationships and it applies to both women, the most often abused in my perception, and males.

    I understand the frustration and concern.

  3. You wrote, "As instructors, it is our responsibility to have an informed understanding of the problem if we are even to offer an opinion let alone attempt to help."

    I couldn't agree more. I am still only a student, but being the only martial artist my family knows I am asked questions relating to domestic violence (thankfully, none in my family have experienced this first hand) and women's safety, in general.
    I have to remind them that the issue is highly complex with many, many, moving parts and that I am still woefully ignorant on the subject before issuing any kind of opinion or suggestion.

    Thankfully, there are articles like these that help fill in my knowledge gaps. Great article, John.

  4. Thanks for your comments, and support. The Strongest Karate: you've already shown wisdom in that you know what you don't know. A rare commodity in general, but especially so in the martial arts and activities associated with preparing a person to survive a violent encounter.


Your comments make my work all the more relevant as I use them to direct my research and theorising. Thank you.